By Serena Gainsborough
The sun's rays broke through the waning night, illuminating the entire countryside. Small animals dotted the grasslands, going about their individual business as predators set themselves up in hidden places, ready to strike. A gentle breeze stirred, blowing out the trees' leaves and gliding across the tall grass before spiraling heavenward from whence it came. A herd of gazelle-like creatures ran across the open field toward a vast mountain range topped with greenery. The entire atmosphere seemed to darken as they neared the mountains until at last a small village could be seen set up at the base of a mighty canyon. Stairs carved into the rock face led up to an entrance where a lone man stood. He watched the morning commotion as still as a statue, his purpose to welcome visitors to the canyon and to keep intruders away. This morning a large group of men had arrived, led by another man dressed in a white lab coat. The man in white had boasted he was a brilliant scientist and required the immediate assistance of Jack, a young man whom the Elder Bugenhagen had taken in. But Jack had been missing for days, causing the Elders to worry. After a brief counsel with Bugenhagen the men had left, the scientist leaving a name and number where he could be reached.
The lone guard grunted softly as he thought of the scientist's name. Professor Hojo. Hojo seemed to radiate a bad aura from his nervousness to impatience that surpassed any man. The bad feelings about Hojo never left the guard even though it had been well over an hour since Hojo took his leave. Just then the wind picked up at a greater pace, causing the guard to look up. What he saw took his breath away. A large airship that sparkled in the sunlight glided overhead, birds cawing as they quickly avoided the ship. The guard turned and called for a small child who was chasing a puppy near the great Cosmo Candle in the center of the town.
"We have more visitors!"
Cid unraveled the rope ladder and flung it over the side of the guardrail before stepping back and taking a drag on his cigarette. He gestured with a gloved hand to Jack, who stood next to him. Jack turned to look over at the others who had assembled to see him off. Cloud stepped forward and placed his hand on Jack's bare shoulder.
"Take care, Jack. I can't thank you enough for being there for Aerith," he said, the smile on his face highlighting his Mako eyes. Jack returned Cloud's smile and bobbed his head.
"Sephiroth shares your gratitude. He may not say it, but I know," Jack said. Cloud tried not to frown at the mention of Sephiroth's name. Ever since they had fled from Nibelheim Sephiroth and Aerith had remained behind closed doors, giving Cloud nothing else to think about save his dislike of them being together. But he knew he had no power over what Aerith did and as long as she was safe nothing else mattered. Jack could tell from Cloud's silence that the young man obviously disliked Sephiroth for reasons all his own.
"I'm sure he does," Cloud muttered before nodding curtly to Jack and leaving. Cid sidestepped Cloud, his cigarette hanging off his bottom lip.
"Damn!" was all he said. Jack shook Vincent's good hand and smiled, nodded to Cid and turned away when he heard Aerith call his name. All turned to see Aerith standing in the doorway, Sephiroth directly behind her. She was back in her normal attire, a smile on her face. It appeared to Vincent that she seemed to shine more brightly than the sun as she approached them. Jack smiled as Aerith stopped before him and took his hands. For a moment it was just the two of them as Jack stared into her aquamarine eyes.
"I can't thank you enough, Jack. I'll be sure to visit you," she said before reaching over and kissing his cheek gently. Jack gave her a quick embrace and pulled away. He looked up to see Sephiroth standing beside Aerith, his usually grim face gone. Sephiroth appeared to be at peace. He silently reached for Jack's hand and shook it, nodding. Jack returned Sephiroth's nod, knowing that the man before him was one to speak only when he had something to say.
"They're waitin' for ya, kid," Cid said, exhaling the smoke from his cigarette. Jack agreed, cast one last glance at the assembled group before leaping over the edge and climbing down. All peered over the side to make sure Jack touched ground safely. When at last Jack jumped off the ladder and raised his hand to signal to Cid Aerith waved, a smile on her face. Cid pulled the last of the rope ladder on board and announced he was ready to go. Vincent followed Cid back to the cockpit but Aerith and Sephiroth remained on the deck. They stared out at the horizon as the Highwind slowly pulled away from Cosmo Canyon, unsure of where they would go or what they would do now that their home in the Forgotten City wasn't safe. Aerith reached for Sephiroth's gloved hand and held it gently, looking up at him. Sephiroth in turn met her gaze, knowing what was on her mind.
"Where are we going to go?" she asked softly. Sephiroth shook his head slowly.
"I do not know, Aerith. With Hojo still at large and obsessing with your and Jack's heritage I seriously doubt anywhere is safe." Aerith looked down, sighing.
"Perhaps we could stay with Cloud and the others," she suggested. Sephiroth turned on her, taking hold of her shoulders. Aerith gazed into his eyes, seeing his deep-felt concern for her in them.
"No, Midgar is far too dangerous for you. I won't place you in the lap of Shinra, not after what recently happened." Sephiroth looked over his shoulder for a moment as if contemplating what to do when they heard another voice speak to them.
"You two are in need of a new place to stay?" Vincent said as he walked onto the deck, the wind fanning out his raven hair and red cloak. Aerith turned, surprised that Vincent had shown some interest in them.
"Yes," she said. Vincent came to a stop not to far from where she and Sephiroth stood, leaning his arms over the guardrail.
"I know of a place no one could ever find you. It was a special place for-" Vincent shook his head, reluctant to continue. Aerith tilted her head slightly at him, curious. Vincent sighed and turned to look at the pair next to him.
"A cave that I know of which is pretty much isolated may be of some great use to you. Hojo will not find you there. He never knew of that place," Vincent explained. Sephiroth nodded silently.
"Can you show us this place?" he asked. Vincent's reply was positive thus making Aerith smile in relief.
"Maybe at last we can find some peace," she said. Sephiroth wasn't too sure about their finding peace. He looked out at the bright sky, his eyes narrowed as he thought of Hojo. Hojo's words had not been so easily forgotten in Sephiroth's mind and he knew the time would come when Hojo would answer every question the great warrior had. Right before the Masamune would be stained with the blood of that madman.
"Elder!" Jack called for the fourth time since his arrival in Cosmo Canyon. Everyone had been so glad to see him safe, but Jack only wished to speak with Bugenhagen. He had to inform the wise old man of Aerith's existence and how her life was in danger. Jack raced up the stairs, waving a quick hello to the kind woman who ran the weapons shop on his way to the observation tower. Small children were playing in a storage room on the second floor, one of them dodging past Jack. Jack was quick to regain his balance before pressing on. Suddenly he bumped into someone, knocking him off his feet. Jack fell into a pile of boxes, grunting as one hit him on the head.
"Hoo hoo hoo my boy, what's the rush?" said Bugenhagen in his normal tone, his arms flailing like wings. Jack got to his feet immediately and bowed his head.
"Elder Bugenhagen, I've come with news regarding my capture." Bugenhagen chuckled and waved Jack's explanation off.
"I know all about what happened to you, Jack. Hoo hoo hoo," Bugenhagen said as he turned and floated upward. Jack, even after all these years, still found it hard to believe how Bugenhagen could know so much. He followed the old man, keeping pace as they made their way to the tower. Jack emerged from the opening situated in the ground and went inside to find Bugenhagen floating before the door which led to his observation room. Bugenhagen gestured with a hand to have Jack sit.
"Troublesome times are afoot hoo hoo hoo," Bugenhagen said as he came to a stop before Jack. Jack agreed.
"Hojo is relentless. He wants to conduct a series of experiments on myself and Aerith Gainsborough, another Cetra." Bugenhagen placed his hand on his chin in thought.
"Aerith...Aerith...I know I've heard that name before." Suddenly his face brightened.
"Hoo hoo hoo! She was with the group of strange people when Nanaki returned from Midgar. I knew she was a Cetra, my boy," he said as he smiled and flapped his arms. Jack stood up, meeting the old man's gaze.
"Is there anything we can do to prevent Hojo from finding either of us again? Is there anywhere we can go?" Jack asked. Bugenhagen flapped his arms again as he floated away from Jack. Jack watched the old man, almost afraid of the answer he would receive.
"Times certainly have changed hoo hoo hoo. Nowadays Shinra can find anyone anywhere," Bugenhagen shook his head slowly. Jack looked down and sighed. As usual Bugenhagen was right.
"Do you think I should have stayed with them?" Bugenhagen rotated and shook his head.
"Hoo hoo hoo! Cloud and the others, theirs is a different path than yours. For now it is best you stay here. Hojo was here this morning but he didn't find any answers I was willing to give. The time is soon upon us, Jack. Hoo hoo hoo...soon everything will come to a close."
"You'll be all right going there alone?" Cloud called above the Highwind's engines. Before him stood Sephiroth, Aerith and Vincent, the mountains of Nibel decorating the landscape behind them. Vincent assured Cloud he knew the way quite well and that they would encounter little trouble getting there. Cloud sighed, wishing he could make them change their mind. He wanted to keep Aerith under close observation, knowing she was being hounded again. But when he caught glimpse of the Masamune at Sephiroth's side Cloud reluctantly admitted Aerith had the best protection against Hojo. He looked over at Aerith, remembering the kiss they had shared back in the Forgotten City and he did not know why. She smiled at him, making Cloud feel strangely comforted. He shook the feeling off as he recalled Tifa and his wish to return to Midgar to make sure she was all right. Cloud waved to the three before hurrying up the ladder. Aerith, with a hand over her eyes, watched as the Highwind slowly pulled away. The winds generated by the plane kicked up, blowing Aerith's bound chestnut hair all over as well as her dress. She hastily held her dress down, looking over her shoulder to make sure neither of the men had seen anything they shouldn't have. Vincent looked to his left and gestured with his claw.
"It's about a day away from here, hidden deep within the Nibel area," he explained. When Aerith heard where it was located she froze, nearly dropping her weapon and satchel. Sephiroth grabbed Vincent by the scruff of his collar and pulled him forward until they were nose to nose. Ice blue eyes glared into red ones.
"You never said it was near Nibelheim," he said in a low growl. Vincent loosened himself from Sephiroth's iron grip, his red eyes fixed into a cold stare as he adjusted his collar.
"I assure you Hojo will not find you." Sephiroth looked over at Aerith, who sighed and nodded. Sephiroth's glare softened when she looked up into his eyes.
"We have nowhere else to go." Sephiroth agreed, resigned. He knew Aerith wished only to be safe from harm and Sephiroth vowed to make sure she got the peace she so wished for. Vincent turned away from them, staying ahead to distance himself. Sephiroth and Aerith walked side by side, nay a word spoken between them. Aerith walked with her head down, her mind reeling with troublesome thoughts. During her time as Hojo's prisoner she had only begun to grasp what kind of man he really was. What lengths would he go in order to achieve what he desired? Although she did not wish it, she had secretly begun to believe the only way she would finally have peace would be to have Hojo killed. Dismissing that thought entirely Aerith continued on. Sephiroth cast a glance over at her and without realizing he reached for her hand and held it gently. Aerith, surprised, smiled softly as his hand enveloped hers. By that gesture alone it seemed that everything would work out for the better. Aerith then knew Sephiroth would be the key to her freedom and found great comfort in that fact.
Sephiroth stood against a tree later that night, the Masamune at his side. Aerith lay curled up in a sleeping bag close to the fire which was still burning brightly, a soft smile on her face as she dreamed. Sephiroth looked down on her briefly before turning his attention back to the mountains that surrounded Nibelheim. Somewhere deep in that range lay the cavern Vincent had spoken of, possibly the last hope of his and Aerith's safety. Sephiroth shuddered slightly as he recalled the heinous act he did all those years ago. He had cut down the poor villagers with nay a care, his one goal to retrieve Jenova, his 'mother' from the Nibel Reactor. Sephiroth found it strange how he could not remember what happened after he tore the casing off the capsule where the Jenova specimen was stored. Everything seemed to be a white blur. The sound of a stick snapping and sizzling in the fire startled Sephiroth, his hand on the Masamune instantly. Aerith turned over to lay on her side, softly sighing. Sephiroth shook his head, trying to rid himself of his nervousness. Just then he was overcome with excruciating pain, a cry escaping his throat as he dropped the Masamune. He didn't notice the sword falling into the fire, sparks flying heavenward in its wake. Pressing one hand against the tree for support, Sephiroth held his middle with his free one as he concentrated. Sweat developed on his forehead but when he heard his name directly behind him he dared not look over his shoulder. Aerith, having been roused when the Masamune had fallen into the fire, stood with both hands covering her mouth in fear.
"Sephiroth, are you-?" Aerith was silenced by Sephiroth's free hand waving any sort of question off. Aerith clasped her hands before her, tears threatening to develop in her eyes. She wanted to help but she wasn't sure how she could and it hurt to have her concern wavered. After what seemed like an eternity Sephiroth slowly regained his composure and turned. Aerith could see the sweat glistening off his forehead and chest, but nothing prepared her for the look in his eyes. It was a look of someone who wished not to be seen when he was in great agony. That look made Aerith nervous a bit but she still stayed where she was, transfixed. Sephiroth leaned over and retrieved the Masamune before sheathing it in its normal resting place under his arm. He refused to speak, adding to Aerith's unease.
"Was what... Hojo said about...Jenova's cells true?" Aerith asked in a frightened whisper. Sephiroth clenched his fist, his eyes narrowed. Aerith tentatively reached for his arm. She was afraid he would jerk away from her touch but he allowed her to take his arm. Aerith stepped closer to him, all the while gazing into his eyes. Sephiroth met her gaze and could feel his previous tension slipping away to be replaced by sorrow.
"Aerith...," he began but Aerith shook her head, placing her fingers over his lips. Her smile was one of genuine concern.
"I want to help you, Sephiroth. If you're in pain or confused, I'm here for you." Sephiroth was stunned into silence at her words, still not quite used to comprehending the new emotions that she always brought out in him. Aerith smiled and embraced him, laying her head on his shoulder. Sephiroth wound an arm around her small frame, bringing her closer to him as he exhaled slowly. Silently he cursed Hojo, wishing for the madman to cease existing that very moment.
A short distance away Vincent watched with a heavy heart as Sephiroth and Aerith embraced. The son of the woman he had loved so dearly was dying. The Jenova cells within him were consuming the very lifeblood that was necessary to sustain Sephiroth. Vincent shook his head and exhaled slowly. He would not be able to condone letting the son of Lucrecia die, for doing so would add upon him yet another sin. He remembered Hojo's words all too well and from the history of past 'children of Jenova' it wasn't hard for Vincent to put two and two together. Hojo was most likely seeking them out even now. At that thought Vincent got to his feet and headed for the embracing couple, determined to make sure Hojo did not take another life.
In a room shadowed by a flickering light sat a solitary man, his eyes set in an amused stare at the folder before him. The room itself lay in shambles, the result of the man's rage after having lost the most important part of his experiments. Jenova was gone, having been incinerated by Sephiroth. After the general anger had passed the man slid into the creaking old chair to reflect and that was when he had started to laugh. Jenova would have her revenge. In fact, she was now. The Reunion was at hand and no one, not even Sephiroth, could prevent it. Hojo got to his feet, his chuckling starting anew as the folder slid from his lap. If he had figured out his calculations correctly, Sephiroth's time was near. That alone brought a smile to Hojo's otherwise slack features. It would be a day well remembered when everything he predicted would fall into place.
The following day Vincent, Sephiroth and Aerith came upon the cave nestled within a crater, the tips of the Nibel mountains in the distance. The wind that came off the mountains brought cold air to the small lake, but none of the travelers seemed to notice. Vincent stared at the waterfall which masked the cave entrance and sighed. Even after all this time he still could remember the times he and Lucrecia shared, from the stories to the special tender moments. Shaking his head, Vincent turned to Aerith and Sephiroth to forget the pain those memories brought forth.
"There it is," he said softly. Aerith could hear pain in his voice but said nothing. Instead she nodded and proceeded to climb down the sloping incline toward the cave. Sephiroth followed, making his way down quite easily even though he was carrying his sword and a satchel. Vincent remained where he was, lost in his memories of Lucrecia. Aerith hopped over a small rock, thankful she didn't lose her balance when she touched ground. She suddenly saw a flock of birds nestled on the grassy plain near her and paused, admiring them. She took a step toward them but her foot slipped, causing her to cry out. Sephiroth saw her falter and instantly bounded toward her. Just as Aerith was leaning toward the lake below she found herself swept up into Sephiroth's arms and held on as he cleared the cliff in one jump. Vincent, having been brought out of his reverie by Aerith's scream, exhaled in relief when he saw no harm had come to her. He made his way down to where the other two stood, careful not to slip.
"Are you all right?" Sephiroth asked as he looked down on Aerith. Aerith nodded, though her heart was beating a mile a minute. She smiled softly at him, making him feel wonderful inside and out. Aerith suddenly felt embarrassed by the way Sephiroth was staring at her and averted her gaze. Sephiroth noticed the sudden rush of color to her cheeks and set her down gently. Vincent joined them just as Sephiroth placed Aerith on her feet. Nodding to Aerith, Vincent proceeded toward the cave. The way Sephiroth had held Aerith made Vincent recall the time when Lucrecia had nearly slipped and fell while climbing down and he was just as quick to save her as Sephiroth was. The memory was like a knife going through his heart for soon after they had shared their first kiss.
"The cave is just behind the waterfall!" Vincent shouted above the roar of the water as it spilled into the lake below. His two comrades nodded and headed onward. Aerith gasped as the cold water hit her, freezing her to the bone. Sephiroth barely felt the cold water as it hit him, but he saw Aerith shiver and drew her closer to him. After another moment the three had cleared the water and now stood in the mouth of the cave. Vincent was reluctant to enter, for the entire cave hummed with Lucrecia's memory.
"This is suitable," Sephiroth said as he stepped further into the cave and dropped his satchel to the floor. Aerith held herself as she surveyed the single large cavern. A strange fountain of some kind was situated at the end of the cave, a seat carved of rock underneath it. As she drew closer to it she suddenly felt warm and realized that the fountain was responsible. Vincent noticed her surprise and proceeded to explain.
"That's a materia fountain made up of mostly fire magic. It kept this cavern warm, even on the coldest winter night. This is the only available room, but around the corner is a blocked area that leads into the back of the mountain," Vincent explained. Sephiroth walked to see the blockaded room, leaving Aerith and Vincent alone. Vincent watched Aerith for a moment as she removed her red jacket and laid it next to her. The fire fountain seemed to have already dried her off, but the look in her eyes told Vincent something else.
"This place was special to you, wasn't it," Aerith said softly. Vincent winced as if he had been struck. That was a statement, not a question. Her perceptions hadn't failed her yet.
"Yes, that's right," Vincent replied. Aerith looked over at him, a small smile on her face.
"This whole place is alive with her memory. It must hurt you dearly to be back here again after so many years."
"That was a long time ago, Aerith. This cave has always been a special place, now it's yours. I hope to see you again," Vincent nodded to her and turned away, his form engulfed by the water. Aerith sighed softly, wondering why Vincent was reluctant to speak of his past. Aerith turned to stare at the fire fountain, lost in her own thoughts. Vincent didn't even give her a chance to say thank you, his departure was so abrupt. Sephiroth suddenly appeared next to her, giving Aerith a start. She looked up into his eyes, one hand over her heart in surprise. Sephiroth was silent for a moment, simply staring at her. Aerith finally broke the silence.
"Is that extra room blocked?" she asked. Sephiroth nodded before taking a seat next to her on the ledge and laying the Masamune aside. Realizing his black coat was still wet Sephiroth removed his shoulder pads and undid the coat at the waist, sliding it off. Aerith tried hard not to watch as she blushed, keeping her eyes on her folded hands. Sephiroth barely noticed Aerith's more than obvious nervousness as he took off his coat and spread it out near the fountain. He sat down once more and clasped his hands on his lap, leaning forward. Aerith looked over at him when she was sure the redness of her face was gone, wondering what was on his mind.
"Aerith, when you saw me...the other night, what did you think?" Sephiroth suddenly asked, his tone of voice soft. Aerith slid a little closer to him, feeling as if he would need any comfort she could give him.
"I was afraid. I remember what Hojo said about the Jenova cells killing you and...," Aerith bit her lower lip and looked down. Sephiroth kept his gaze downward, waiting for her to finish.
"And if you died, I- I wouldn't know what to do," Aerith finished. Sephiroth looked over at her in surprise as her words enveloped him. She had her hands folded at her lap, her bangs draped over her eyes to hide any expression. He slowly reached for her hands and covered them both with his own. Aerith gasped slightly as the warmth of his touch coursed throughout her entire body. It was rare that she could feel his touch when he wasn't wearing the black gloves and she always ended up blushing. Lifting her head she peered into fathomless ice blue eyes that gazed into her very soul. She soon realized that they were drawing closer and before she knew it Sephiroth was inches from her face. His eyes were partially closed as he spoke in a soft voice.
"I won't die," he whispered huskily as Aerith wrapped her arms around him. They embraced tightly as the fire fountain shimmered behind them. Sephiroth then lifted his head away from Aerith toward the entrance to the cave and narrowed his eyes. Aerith could feel him tense and questioned him quietly. Sephiroth slid out of her embrace and got to his feet, the Masamune in his hand in an instant. Aerith remained on her seat, curious. Aerith watched him creep toward the entrance like a predator, his blade poised and ready. Without warning Sephiroth charged out of the cave, the water swallowing his form. Aerith got to her feet and raced after him, crying his name.
"Sephiroth!!" she cried before she, too, leapt into the water. She wasn't prepared for the onslaught of liquid and was instantly pushed to the ground. Water rushed into her mouth as she fell for what seemed like forever before at last she splashed down into the lake. Breaking the surface and gasping for air Aerith pushed back her bangs to see Sephiroth holding someone at bay with the Masamune. The sun gleamed off the sword and his muscular form, accenting his body in all the right places. Aerith paddled to shore and climbed out, breaking into a run as soon as she touched dry land. Sephiroth stood as still as a statue, his ice blue eyes narrowed while the tip of the Masamune pressed against the intruder's neck. When Aerith got close enough to the two she saw that Sephiroth was holding a young man in place. She could see the fear written all over his face.
"Excuse me, sir, but what are you doing here?" Aerith asked, reaching up to wipe away the water that was dripping off her face. The man looked from Sephiroth to Aerith before stuttering incoherently. Sephiroth cocked his head in curiosity, but the sword didn't relax.
"I found him crouching near the cave entrance. What were you doing?" Sephiroth demanded. The man paled even more, but did not answer. Then without warning the man turned and ran, scrambling up the side of the hill as quickly as he could. Sephiroth watched him leave with a frown on his handsome features. There was something unnerving about the man's sudden appearance and he felt compelled to follow him to wherever he was going. Aerith suddenly sneezed, drawing Sephiroth's immediate attention toward her. He looked bewildered at her appearance.
"You, leapt out?" he asked. Aerith nodded, then started to laugh a bit.
"I feel so foolish now. I haven't brought anything else to wear and I can't exactly get undressed," she said. Sephiroth sheathed his sword under his arm and shook his head, small water droplets from his trek through the water carried away by the wind.
"My coat should be dry by now. You can wear that until your dress dries," he said. Aerith felt her whole body heat up in a blush as she pictured herself wearing his coat. Before she could protest Sephiroth took her hand and led her back toward the cave.
On to Part 2.
Back to Forever.